Published May 29, 2019Everyone's favourite giant Japanese lizard, Godzilla has always represented, since his 1954 debut, society's fears about apocalyptic destruction. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the new film in Legendary's MonsterVerse, features some thought-provoking themes about just how catastrophic irreversible environmental damage can be. While the message itself becomes muddled, as the narrative gives way to gigantic monsters pummelling each other, it still resonates.
The film's dramatic performances are well-acted enough, but the action sequences are where Godzilla: King of the Monsters shines. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty, a Godzilla fan since childhood, lends an appropriate amount of awe and mythos to the monsters appropriately called "Titans," paying homage to classic Godzilla franchise kaiju like Mothra, Rodan, and the big bad lizard himself.
Picking up after 2014's Godzilla, the new film follows scientists — and estranged married couple — Drs. Mark and Emma Russell (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) and their teenage daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). Following the death of their son from a Godzilla attack on San Francisco in 2014, Mark and Emma have very different opinions on the monsters humanity has started calling "the Titans." Mark believes they're mindless killing machines, while Emma is convinced humans and Titans can coexist peacefully. When Emma develops technology that facilitates communication with the Titans, she and Madison are abducted by an eco-terrorist paramilitary group lead by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Mark teams up with crypto-zoological agency Monarch to locate Emma and Madison, and attempt to understand why these ancient monsters are hell-bent on destruction, before it's too late.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters aims to strike an even chord between balls-to-the-wall kaiju battles and high-stakes drama, and for the most part, it succeeds without dragging the film's pace down. This is largely owing to the performances, with Farmiga, Ziyi Zhang and Ken Watanabe being particular standouts, the latter lending his usual grace and gravitas to dialogue that tends to edge on corny. But it's genuinely refreshing to see a film of this ilk feature so many women and people of colour advancing narrative progression in meaningful ways, as well as occupying high-ranking and diverse occupations like scientists and military colonels.
It's a little disappointing, however, that many of the characters don't have narrative arcs that come full-circle — like the film's environmental themes, humans aren't front and centre in this story, but it's a bit of a shame when there's so much talent on display here.
While the kaiju are obviously the stars of this film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters attempts to explain that we're to blame for the havoc being wrecked upon the planet, as a result of our insistence on destroying the Earth's resources. It's not by any means a subtle message, and one that's introduced midway though the film and becomes lesser in scope as the action begins to take prominence over plot. But it's an admirable one, considering how high-profile and big-budget this film is — an overt environmental message, one that actively criticizes our role in destroying the Earth's natural defense systems, is a hard one to sell.
Of course, Godzilla: King of the Monsters would be very inappropriately named if it didn't feature a hell of a lot of monsters, so it's a good thing that it really, really does. The King himself only appears for about eight minutes in 2014's Godzilla, and Dougherty not only rectifies this by making the Titans appear more frequently, but also gives them a sense of massive, otherworldly scale. These monsters feel enormous in both size and presence, with cinematography that feels both painterly and organic. The monsters themselves are lit with warm elemental tones, with a texture that makes them appear as if they're part of the Earth itself.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters, at times, feels like two very different movies: caught between apocalyptic drama and the visual spectacle of CGI Titans duking it out amidst cities in ruin. But, for most of its runtime, the pieces of a legitimately well-made movie are there. Even when the pieces don't fit together, they're still fun to play with.